02 Feb 97 - Republic of Djibouti, Africa
This is a country 'where only the rocks grow'. It is a volcanic place, almost lunar, forming mountains of rock then eroding them away. From the southern end of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Tadjoura cuts deep into this tiny desert country almost splitting it in half. Here, the Great Rift Valley begins its long journey down through Africa. Skimming across the surface of Lake Assal, I imagine myself being protected by the walls of tortured black volcanic rock around me. I look at my altimeter, and I am flying 400 feet below the level of the sea. This is the lowest point in Africa, and one of the hottest places in the world. This is a country where it can be 64° C (147° F) in the shade with 95% humidity at the same time. "You can only sleep," I am told, "but you can't."
I don't know anyone here. I land and it is hot. I taxi up to the front of the control tower and shut down the engine. The thick air fills the cabin and makes it hard to breathe. I walk into the tower, and there are bodies everywhere. They are sleeping on the floor and on the tables. They are wrapped with patterned cloth around their waist, and no one moves. It is Ramadan - the Muslim month of fasting - and after 11:30 in the morning, the whole of Djibouti goes back to sleep until sunset.
A man named Abdulahi emerges from a dark room, but doesn't smile. I ask him in French if he knows any European pilots here. He pulls out a piece of paper with a phone number on it, then hands me the phone. The voice on the other end is American; his name is Dan Janssen. "Oh, I think I have read about you somewhere," he says. His mechanic, Jeff Graham, invites me to stay with him. I am exhausted from all the beaurocracy and formalities of leaving one country and entering another. You have to keep smiling, and you have to make them smile. My little plane has struggled to take off from over 7,000 feet altitude in Ethiopia, but then I had to climb even higher to get above the clouds and the mountains. I notice on my map the warning that one must be in radio contact with Djibouti ten minutes prior to entering Djiboutian airspace. No one is answering my radio calls. The warning is printed in such a way that I start to wonder if they would shoot me down. There has been war here too, between the Somali and Afar, and these are hard and volatile desert people.
The French have a military base in Djibouti. The Mirage jets look so fragile as they slide past me on spindly legs out to the runway. Then there is a hard long cracking sound as fire shoots out of the back and these sharp metal machines go into the air. There is also a port and a railway in Djibouti. Hashish comes in from India bound for Ethiopia, and slave girls from Sudan come to Tadjoura and Obock bound for Yemen then Saudi Arabia. On the Eritrean border near the pointed mountain Moussa Ali, you used to be able to buy contraband. The boats would come across from Yemen, and it was not an unusual sight to see a camel carrying a TV set.
Dan tells me this whole place runs on khat. The green leaf and stem has to be fresh to have the full effect, so two times a day, the Ethiopian Airlines C-130 will fly into Djibouti from Harar with cargo loads of khat. They also take it to London on their Boeing 767. It is a non-addictive stimulant, and it is legal. In Kenya, they call this miraa, and it is big business selling it to the Somalis. Many people will spend half their income on khat. It makes you feel good, but very aggressive, and you can go for days without sleep. As the sun sets in the evening, people begin to break the fast in their homes. The streets are alive with venders selling food and khat. Ramadan is a special time in the Moslem world. For one full cycle of the moon, all Muslims will abstain from food and drink and sex during the course of the day. There are many sullen and cheerless faces during this time and very little work gets done, but at night everything comes alive. It is a time of year to thank God for what you have been given, for it is sometimes only when things are taken away, that you are reminded of their value.
There is an old Somalia saying which says, 'Let your wife and your chief speak first.' Dan invites me to fly with him to Somaliland. Far beyond Hargeysa, we drift deep into the desert. The British used to call this "the Somali shag". It is a barren and hard land, and the people are like the land. We land and are greeted by people with guns. They are there to protect the airstrip and the planes that fly the khat in. We are driven down a road and into a town of small stone buildings. We have brought an aid worker with us who has come to inquire about the medical conditions in the area and to see if he can be of assistance. I am intrigued by the process. They are a little like vultures who want to feed on a fat cow. There are procedures we must follow and people we must meet. More than half of our visit is spent visiting the various people who will facilitate the aid process. One of them shows me letters from all the previous aid organizations that he has facilitated. It seems that this whole town lives on the process of "facilitation" and facilitation involves fees.
I look at the white star on the light blue Somali flag hanging outside of a concrete building with more official people. It is hot, and most of them have been waken from their sleep. The last time I was in this country was before the war. I remember how much they liked the Americans. Things are different now. An Australian pilot was released back in October after 117 days being held hostage by the Somalis. He had landed at the wrong place. They sold the plane back to the insurance company for $200,000. These people are warriors and shrewd businessmen.
The men we are with seem to feel that Somaliland and Somalia are two different countries. We are supposed to be in Somaliland, yet the flag I see belongs to Somalia. It is still being negotiated, they tell me. We are taken further down the road to the sight were the aid worker wants to inspect a clinic. A truck full of camels pulls in to refuel. A young boy invites me up to inspect his camels. The Somali people have very fine features and high cheekbones. We meet more local officials and explain everything again. There has to be agreement and consensus among everyone before we can see anything. I am watching Dan amidst this long process. He is cool and wary at the same time. This seems to me to be a place where you can just be taken hostage if you upset the wrong person. I can't help but think that the volatile nature of these people is all fueled by khat. Fortunately, during Ramadan, everyone must wait until sunset to start chewing it again.
Back in Djibouti, Dan and Jeff offer to help me with an annual inspection on my plane. I need one of these by a licensed mechanic examiner every year. It is sometimes hard to find someone qualified to help me with this, but these two are experts. They have each worked in some of the wilder places of Africa where there is little margin for error. Jeff tells me that when he first arrived in Liberia, he was greeted, "Welcome to Liberia. You have come at a bad time; my country is at war." He says that at one time, there were 12 different factions fighting in Liberia. Some of the factions used to initiate 12 year old boys by giving them an AK-47 machine gun and telling them to go home and murder their whole family; if they did this and came back, they would be men. In Mozambique, there was a whole different set of rules. You could get arrested if you drove with your lights on during the day; that was reserved for the presidential cavalcade. You could also get arrested for carrying a bicycle in your car; that was reserved for commercial vehicles. As I watch Dan and Jeff work with me on my plane, I can see something. They are both exhausted, but they keep working. They are both giving me advice and ideas on parts of my engine to look after. There is a sincerity and concern in their eyes that really humbles me. I think there is something in the Bible somewhere that says 'cast your bread upon the waters.' I have always been interested in this phrase. I can't give back to these men, and they won't let me pay them. There seems to be a common bond between us because of what we do and where we are. I can't fully explain it, but it makes me feel not alone.
I am still not getting any reply from Yemen about my flight clearance. I have
tried communicating by fax, AFTN and HF radio. Dan shakes his head. He knows
this game too well. "The problem is that there is simply no way to find out," he
says. This is the hard part to get used to in this part of the world. You don't
know what the rules are, and no one else does either. I try to find out about
fuel in Yemen. One person tells me no, then another says yes. The more people I
ask, the less sure I become. Yemen is not Africa; it is Arabia.